Kentucky Republicans risk bruising primary in bid to unseat Beshear

Kentucky Republicans are bracing for a tense and potentially bruising primary in their bid to oust Andy Beshear, the popular Democratic governor facing reelection.

State Attorney General Daniel Cameron, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft and state Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles are frontrunners in the 12-candidate primary, which will take place on May 16.

Cameron’s name recognition has made him the candidate to beat at the outset. Craft and a super PAC supporting her have spent millions to raise her profile and negatively frame Cameron.

“Can Craft’s resources overcome Cameron’s celebrity? I mean, that’s been the real question of this race,” Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who’s worked on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) campaigns, told The Hill last week.

FOX 56/Emerson College poll released Thursday showed Cameron with 30 percent support, Craft with 24 percent and Quarles with 15 percent. Twenty-one percent were undecided, and none of the seven other candidates included reached double digits. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Tres Watson, former communications director for the state GOP and Quarles’s 2015 campaign manager, said last week that Quarles has “by far and away the largest grassroots network” and that the race presents “perfect control groups to test if someone can still talk local and win a primary” as opposed to focusing on national issues.

Each top candidate is running a conservative campaign — “pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Trump … the basic contours of a Republican primary,” Jennings said. They differ in the policy areas and experience they emphasize.

Cameron has “one foot in the McConnell camp … and one foot in the Trump camp,” said University of Kentucky political science associate professor Stephen Voss.

Cameron previously served as legal counsel to McConnell and has received former President Trump’s endorsement. Trump won the state in 2020 by 26 percentage points.

Cameron is campaigning on his challenges to the Biden administration on immigration policyCOVID-19 policies and the Keystone XL Pipeline, along with his efforts to limit Beshear’s emergency powers. His campaign released its first TV ad on Wednesday, saying Cameron fought Beshear to reopen churches during the pandemic.

He’s also highlighting his defense of the state’s anti-abortion laws and settlements he reached with drug companies over their role in the opioid epidemic.

T.J. Litafik, a strategist who has worked with both Democratic and Republican candidates, said earlier this week before Cameron released his first ad that Cameron was banking on name ID up to that point and to expect an intensifying media campaign in the final stretch.

The outside group Bluegrass Freedom Action released a pro-Cameron ad on March 30, echoing several of Cameron’s campaign messages.

Cameron received Trump’s endorsement before Craft entered the race, but Craft has her own connection to the former president, having served in his administration as U.S. ambassador to Canada and then to the United Nations. She garnered an endorsement last fall from now-House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.), who campaigned with her on Wednesday.

Craft “is visibly gaining the momentum here in the last five weeks of the campaign,” Litafik said. “Not only is she spending the money, she’s … running a much more aggressive in-person campaign.”

Craft is campaigning on her role in negotiating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which overhauled the North American Free Trade Agreement, and her criticisms of Cameron over a coal plant in West Virginia serving Kentucky that Cameron recommended closing in 2021.

Cameron has defended himself in statements on his campaign website. One says Cameron believed “Kentuckians should not pay for a West Virginia plant through higher utility bills in Kentucky.”

Craft also said she’s “coming for” drug dealers and highlighted a family connection to the issue of addiction.

She caught flak earlier this year for an ad featuring an empty chair at the kitchen table, which some interpreted to mean she’d lost a family member due to addiction. Craft later explained her daughter struggled with addiction and survived. Her campaign said the empty chair represented the impact of addiction on families.

The Commonwealth PAC has been airing ads supporting Craft and seeking to frame Cameron as soft on crime, likening him to a teddy bear. Cameron’s campaign has touted his endorsements from Trump and law enforcement officials in response.

Craft and Commonwealth PAC have spent $5.4 million combined on ads, according to NBC News.

Voss said Craft is trying to “capture the right-wing voters in the Republican primary, while at the same time talking about issues from a perspective of family and … as a wife, a woman, to have some of that crossover appeal to more moderate voters.”

Craft’s running mate is state Sen. Max Wise (R), who sponsored SB 150, the provisions of which include banning gender-affirming health care for trans youth and prohibiting classroom teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation. The legislature overrode Beshear’s veto of the bill last month.

All three top candidates criticized Beshear’s veto.

Quarles is the “odd duck” of the trio, according to Watson, who referred to Quarles as one of his best friends, in that he’s running a “hyperlocal” campaign.

He has endorsements from more than 200 local officials and “has worked rural Kentucky particularly hard,” Litafik said.

Quarles is campaigning as the “ideas candidate.” Along with typical GOP primary issues of crime and increasing parents’ involvement in education decisions, Quarles has been emphasizing broadband access, reforming the state’s tax code and legalizing medical marijuana — the last of which the state legislature did in March.

Voss said Quarles’s strategy of campaigning as “the adult in the room” hasn’t garnered him much media attention, adding that an endorsement from one of the big local papers — the Louisville Courier-Journal or the Lexington Herald-Leader — could help his campaign, should they weigh in on the primary and back him.

Through the beginning of January, Craft had raised $1.3 million and spent more than $1 million. Cameron and Quarles had each raised more than $900,000, and each had spent far less than Craft. 

The Cook Political Report rates the governor’s race lean Democratic.

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